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From the Trenches of Poverty: Meeting the Needs of Impoverished Students

The enrollment of four new homeless students just happened to coincide with the release of our State Report Cards.  A social worker and I gave these students lice treatments, washed clothes, provided school supplies and introduced these students to our school before I would have the opportunity to examine the official results.  I already knew that we were making a difference.  The evidence was all around me.  In the past year, we have fed, we have loved, hugged, cried and encouraged.  We have found mental health treatment, and most importantly, we have provided a safe-haven free from chaos for our student body.

Will this treatment translate to the “official” results from the state? In addition to meeting the social-emotional needs of our students, we have a team of dedicated professionals who spend hour upon hour poring through data and working together to plan instruction to meet the needs of our students.  What would I say to our staff if all of this work didn’t “officially” make a difference in the realm of numbers and magic formulas?  Our work feels like a series of faithful leaps, interwoven with researched best practices.

Our report card had many strengths as well as several areas of opportunity, but my attention was quickly drawn to the subgroup of students within the low socio-economic status group.  The state calls this group a “sub-group”, but they are the vast majority of our students.  They are the 77% of our students who qualify for free or reduced lunch at school.  These are also the students who are showing the most significant growth in our building.

Why are they showing this growth?  The answer sounds simple, but getting there often feels next to impossible.

We take care of “Our Kids”.  We educate the whole child.  We realize the critical role of our school community in our children’s lives.  We also know that if we don’t take care of our students’ most basic needs, we have no chance of teaching them to read, write, learn math and think.

It starts with what many of us take for granted, our basic needs.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow wrote “A Theory of Human Motivation”.  His work explains to educators that learning, creativity and problem solving cannot be achieved until some primitive, basic human needs are met.  If students are hungry, thirsty, tired, or in need of friendship or security, their deficiencies make learning impossible.   While there are certain details of Maslow’s theory that could be questioned on the basis of scientific accuracy, the intuitive nature of this theory is a useful guide for educators working with children from poverty.

If a student is hungry, we feed them.  Our students get two meals (breakfast and lunch) at school each day.  We provide lots of snacks.  Our staff often bring bags of apples or bunches of bananas to share with a class or a group of children.  Many of our teachers have also been known to put food in backpacks on long weekends.

If our students are tired, we let them sleep.  We would rather a student take a 45 minute nap in order to be ready for learning for the rest of the day than lose an entire day of learning because they are exhausted.  If a student is consistently tired, we reach out to the family to help solve the problem so that their child is getting more sleep.

Our team works to try to determine causation of absences.  Sometimes, we give lice treatments at school so that days aren’t missed unnecessarily.  We have a strong working relationship with county truancy officers as well as case workers within Job and Family Services.  We are able to align resources to help families with utilities, housing and groceries when their other means have been exhausted.

We have social skills groups that teach our students how to make friends.  We hug often.  We listen and we love openly and honestly.  We don’t do chaos.  We model peace.  We teach peace.  We remember that no matter our political or moral beliefs about systems serving poverty, we are here for the kids.  These are the people who have no control over their situations and who are the first victims.

Please remember that all of this happens while we are still tasked with the most important job of raising learners.

In his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains, Eric Jensen describes a set of five factors that make a difference when a school is working with poor students.  He calls it the SHARE set of factors:

Support the Whole Child

Hard data

Accountability

Relationship Building

Enrichment Mind-Set

You may notice that several of these principles overlap with Maslow’s theory as well as some of the strategies that have been previously described.

Our building is in the process of learning how to use hard data to support our instructional choices.  We are in the 2nd year of our Response to Intervention overhaul.  It is a messy, messy process.  We spend our meeting times poring through data, working with teachers, forming hypothesis about which teaching and learning strategies will work the best and then we start all over again once a new set of data is collected.  The idea is to never allow a child to fall through the cracks.  We want all children to be as successful as possible.

Perhaps our Response to Intervention process has been our biggest success thus far.  It is also the area where we have so much growth left, especially in the area of an “Enrichment Mind-Set”.  Thus far, we have been intervention oriented within our RtI framework.  This means that some of our data on the state report card reflects that we need to make sure that we are growing our upper fourth and fifth quintiles of students as much as our lower third.  One of the ways we are addressing this need is by creating a 40 minute “enrichment and intervention” period within our daily schedule.  During this time, the idea is for students to be working on projects and interventions that meet their needs.  This means being intentional about the enrichment we provide.  It is a challenge that we hope to take head-on.

The work that we do often feels impossible, frustrating and even thankless.  It’s important for our team to remember to help each other with perspective as we dig through all of this work.

We also need to keep some guiding principles in mind:

We believe that all of our students can achieve. We will empower them toward success.  

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